By Jim Schutze
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"Fight back" is the take-away message from a visit to Debtorboards, which is intended to help consumers who wish to file lawsuits without the help of lawyers. Debtorboards outlines steps consumers can take to deal with bothersome debt collectors. For example, if a debt collector is only bothering you, you could send them a letter or sue them. However, if you're so far in debt that you see no way out but bankruptcy, then you can check out the board's "frustrating the skip tracer" technique. There, you'll find tips on how to run and hide from a collector.
Another Debtorboards user is 29-year-old Daniel Smith, who lives with his fiancé outside of Seattle, Washington. Early in 2009, he tried to obtain financing for a home, but was turned down by Bank of America. He soon discovered that an old girlfriend had put his name on her bank account before she fell into massive debt. He wrote angry letters to the bank, but nothing changed. He sat down at his computer and typed in "Bank of America" and "Fair Debt Collection Act" and soon landed on Debtorboards. "I spent hours upon hours upon hours on there," Smith says. "The big epiphany is I'm a little guy but I've got a voice and I'm going to use it."
Like Cunningham, Smith now armed himself with voice recorders and began keeping meticulous financial files. His file cabinet grew quickly. "I mean there's nothing I don't document now and that's probably the best thing a consumer can do."
Smith is an Army vet, an EMT, and a project manager for a construction company. He doesn't advocate stiffing the original creditor on the bill. In fact, Smith will often pay the original creditor, but still go after the violating collection agency.
"The standard line from collection agencies is always, 'Oh, gosh, no, we never violate.'...For the most part, the reality of it is you can sit down and find violation in almost every collection attempt made in America."
Cunningham insists that the court system ignores lawsuits over frivolous violations. His cases, he claims, are built on true screw-ups. Cunningham won his first lawsuit, after all, after a collection company threatened to garnish his wages and put a lien on his house, both violations of Texas law.
Although that first lawsuit was filed with the help of a consumer rights lawyer, Cunningham has been filing on his own since then. Once he saw that the entire amount of the original settlement was upward of $3,500, and he only got $1,000, while his lawyer pocketed the rest as payment, Cunningham was motivated to go pro se.
"I remember seeing the $3,500 and thinking shoot that's a lot of money, and I'm only getting a grand, so maybe I can do a little better than that if there is a next time."
Cunningham made sure there'd be a next time. A company was trying to collect on an outstanding utility bill. They threatened to send this debt to the credit bureaus and wreck his credit score. He ended up paying the utility company the money he owed, but sued the collection company because of how they threatened and harassed him for the debt. The case earned him close to $3,500.
He was fast becoming one of the most hated debtors in Dallas, and part of an especially loathed minority of debtors in the country.
Cunningham returned to Texas from a year of active duty with the Army in late 2007, and moved to Dallas. He continued filing lawsuits against debt collection agencies, and he became ever more active on the message boards, holding long conversations about the state of the country with his online pals. In the meantime, he noticed that Debtorboards founder Steven Katz had created a new thread titled "The list you want to be on." Here, Katz reported that a new company had appeared that was dedicated to aiding collection companies scrub their database against repeat FDCPA litigants, like Cunningham.
Cunningham toyed with the idea of suing them. After all, he thought, if they were working with the collection industry and the credit bureaus (FDCPA Case Listing Service partnered with TransUnion in 2009), then the companies sounded like credit reporting agencies to Cunningham, which would mean they would have to abide by certain credit reporting laws. Cunningham wrote to FDCPA Case Listing Service asking for a copy of his credit report (by law, a credit reporting agency must provide a consumer report if asked for one). Instead of a report, however, Cunningham found a lawsuit against him in his mailbox filed in May 2008 in Atlanta federal court. It alleged: "The defendant subscribes to and makes postings to a Web site in which consumers share information and promote litigation against the collection industry...The defendant has now conspired with others on the internet to incite civil litigation against plaintiff for the exclusive purpose of extorting money from the plaintiff."
FDCPA Case Listing Service asked the court to declare that they are not a consumer reporting agency and not subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. To Cunningham, this was a clear attempt to silence him. Cunningham filed a motion to dismiss the case. For one thing, filing the suit in Atlanta was improper venue, Cunningham wrote. They should have sued him in Texas. Furthermore, since Cunningham hadn't actually sued the company, the company had no valid reason to sue him. The court sided with Cunningham.